By: Amber A. Small
Because of my interest in criminal law and prosecution, I was delighted to be offered a position as a Law Clerk with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York. This work, during the summer of 2020, is supported through the Freudenheim Fellowship from the University at Buffalo School of Law. I knew the experience I would gain here would be incredible and perfectly in line with what I hope to do with my law degree after graduating in 2021.
Since starting my position as a Law Clerk this past June, I have already learned an extensive amount of information about federal investigations and prosecutions. I have also been able to assist on several matters, including drafting motions and responses, reviewing evidence, and writing legal memos. In addition to this, I have been able to attend court proceedings and listen to sentencings, which have been especially interesting due to social distancing and the use of video conferencing.
Although I cannot speak in specific detail about any of the legal matters I have been able to work on because of confidentiality requirements, they have all been very intellectually stimulating. In fact, I am pleasantly surprised at how much I have been able to put what I learned in my classes to use! In addition to using the knowledge gained in my Criminal Procedure class, there has not been a day that has gone by in which I have not used the skills I learned in Legal Analysis, Writing, and Research (LAWR) and Professor Reilly’s Practice Ready Legal Writing course.
One of the most important things that has been cemented during my time working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office has been the importance of confidentiality. This is obviously important to the practice of law and something we all know, but the aspects of keeping material confidential during the practice of law becomes even more apparent when you start working on cases. And it needs to stay in the back of your mind constantly when you are working as even the smallest comment or document left open can have lasting impacts.
Beyond the obvious ways in which we all think to keep information confidential, here are a few tips to make sure that you are doing the most you can to not only protect the confidentiality of your client, but also to protect others. There are, of course, different considerations for criminal versus civil attorneys, as well as prosecutors versus defense counsel, so please do keep that in mind as my experience has been with criminal prosecution.
First, always remember to use a secure VPN when working remotely. Even something like checking your email can open you up to viruses and access by third parties.
Never, never, never, ever speak about a case you are working on within earshot of others, not even in front of other attorneys. Even if you think you’re being clever and not using identifying names, speaking about confidential information near others can expose information about victims or defendants, may reveal the identity of confidential informants, can put law enforcement in danger if they are working undercover or planning a raid, and may demolish your trial strategy. I would also recommend limiting the amount of information you discuss with other attorneys in your office though they are not working on the same case – this is because these attorneys may be assigned to work on a future appeal or a civil case brought by an involved party, and any access to confidential information could limit their ability to become involved in future litigation.
It’s also incredibly important to make sure that you are keeping personal information of victims and defendants confidential, especially when they are classified as “protected persons.” In order to ensure you are being respectful of privacy interests, you should check to see if court documents should be filed under seal, or if the defendant or an involved party is a “protected person” who should be referred to by an altered name to protect their anonymity. Not only is this a smart way to ensure you are maintaining confidentiality, it’s a way to show your respect for others.
Lastly, and this is something that is very simple and easy to remember – lock your computer when you leave your desk, and put your files away. This helps to ensure that no one without proper access is able to view the material you are working on, even accidentally.
The amount of experience I have gained in my time at the United States Attorney’s Office through my Freudenheim Fellowship award, and the ways in which it has allowed me to put my legal education to use, has been very rewarding. And although I won’t be able to tell you more about it, I am looking forward to the new projects I’ll be working on as I finish out my last few weeks as a Law Clerk.
Name: Amber A. Small, ’21
Name of Fellowship: Freudenheim Summer Fellowship
Placement: United States Attorney’s Office, Western District of New York
Location: Buffalo, NY
One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship is the value of practical, hands-on legal experience!”